By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 7:51 PM
Michael Steele, the embattled chairman of the Republican National Committee, defended his record Monday at a forum with four rivals who charged him with mismanagement and said the committee faces a major task of rebuilding its finances and credibility.
Steele was unapologetic through most of the 90-minute session. He pointed to the 2010 midterm elections in which Republicans made major gains, including a takeover of the House.
"My record stands for itself," he said. "We won. I was asked to win elections. I was asked to raise money - $192 million over the last two years. We won. The fact that we're here right now celebrating that win, I think, says a lot about the record."
Steele's challengers sometimes couched their criticism gently, but their reading of his tenure was clear.
"It is time for some tough love at the Republican National Committee," said Ann Wagner, former Republican chair in Missouri and ambassador to Luxembourg for former president George W. Bush. She added, "It's broken and needs to be fixed."
Saul Anuzis, former Michigan Republican Party chair, said the committee was at "a moment of crisis," while Wisconsin Republican Party Chair Reince Priebus, once a Steele ally, said the RNC "must restore the trust and confidence" of donors and activists.
Maria Cino, a former deputy secretary of transportation in the Bush administration who also has held high-ranking posts at the RNC, said the committee must "get our fiscal house in order."
Steele is an underdog in the race for RNC chair. His two years at the helm have been marked by almost continuous controversy, including personal gaffes and misstatements and charges of financial management.
Gentry Collins, the former political director at the committee, resigned shortly after last year's election with a detailed blast aimed at Steele in which he said the failure to fully fund get-out-the-vote operations may have cost the party even larger gains in Congress. Collins was a candidate for party chair but dropped out Sunday.
Steele's opponents sharply criticized the RNC's failure to fully fund those turnout operations. "We fell down as a national committee," Wagner said.
Steele explained Monday that he found other ways to accomplish the same goals. "Find me the state that didn't have a winning election and maybe their program wasn't funded," he said. "I think we won in all 50 states this year, and that's the goal, winning."
Many members of the national committee, as well as Republican strategists, expected Steele not to seek a second term. His decision to run puts party officials in the awkward position of having to fire its first African American chairman or keep one of the most controversial chairs in many years in place. Steele enjoys only limited support at present, according to canvasses of the committee by other news organizations.
Throughout the forum, Steele displayed little defensiveness. During a discussion about what would disqualify someone from claiming to be a Republican, he became passionate in describing the need for the party to be more inclusive. "We cannot be a party that sits back with a litmus test and excludes," he said.
He also demonstrated anew his capacity for apparent verbal missteps. At one point, all the candidates were asked to name their favorite book. Steele named Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace." A split-second later, he intoned, "The best of times, the worst of times," which comes from the opening of Charles Dickens's "A Tale of Two Cities."
Asked about it after the debate, Steele brushed off the comment. "I was just having fun," he said. "Please. The quote just came into my head. . . . Tell the Twitter community to calm down."
Monday's forum was sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform and the Web site Daily Caller and co-sponsored by the Susan B. Anthony List, which encourages antiabortion women to run for office.
All the candidates stressed fealty to conservative principles on social and economic issues, and they paid tribute to tea party activists for revitalizing the conservative movement. "We need to play well in the sandbox with the tea party movement, the conservative movement," Priebus said.
During a lightning round, the candidates were asked whether former Alaska governor Sarah Palin could win a general election for president. All said yes. A question about how many guns they owned became a contest for bragging rights. Steele and Cino said none. Priebus, to applause, said five. Wagner said she and her family have "about 16," to which Anuzis responded, "I'm very inadequate at four."
The election for a new party chair will be held Jan. 14 at the RNC's winter meeting. Only the 168 members of the national committee are eligible to vote.